Long ago before Mark Cuban was rolling around in million-dollar bills, he sold garbage bags door-to-door. Before Michael Dell was saying, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell,” he washed dishes. Before Shawn Carter became Jay Z, he had a literal hard-knock life selling crack on the streets of Brooklyn. It takes certain crappy job experiences to conjure up the economic libido to want to succeed. To shoot to the top, sometimes you have to start at the bottom. And that’s what these comedians did. Before they were making us laugh, they were just like you and me. They worked bad jobs. And one wonders to what extent these awful gigs motivated them to write only the greatest lines, for one slip could land them right back at ground zero.
So remember, if you’re in the midst of a dead-end job, take comfort in knowing these great entertainers once did the same.
10. Dane Cook
Before he was selling out Madison Square Garden as an international hit, Dane Cook was a lowly drive-thru server at Burger King. His older brother was the manager, and as he mentions in his debut album Harmful If Swallowed, he was “a d*ck.” But the ever-animated Cook would escape the clutches of slinging Whoppers when he moved to New York City in 1994 with a dream. Say what you want about Dane Cook, but the guy could flip burgers with the best of ’em.
9. Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey was a janitor in a factory growing up in Ontario, Canada. Not by choice. Facing tumultuous times, his family was forced to live out of a Volkswagen camper van while Carrey was still in high school. He worked his hands to the bone to support them, slaving eight hours a day at 15 years old—while going to school.
Carrey soon dropped out because the workload was too much. Perhaps it was for the best, because it led him to Los Angeles in 1979, where he quickly gained a reputation as a relentlessly dynamic performer. He has since taken the world by storm. Suffice it to say his family is in good hands now.
8. Zack Galifianakis
Everyone’s favorite bearded goofball used to be a busboy in a strip club. As he told NPR in 2010: “I used to be a busboy in a strip joint in downtown New York and so I hate strip joints.” Yes, Galifianakis professed that he used to clean up the “messes” of other gentlemen. Use your imagination. But he is no longer. Armed with a piano, a microphone, and a talent for unsettling audiences with hilariously creepy one-liners, Galifianakis became a household name. As well, he starred in the highest grossing comedy of all time, so it’s assumed he no longer has nightmares about wiping “things” off floors and chairs.
7. Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld held many odd jobs as a young’n in New York City. Among others, he sold cheap jewelry and admittedly stolen umbrellas on the sidewalks of Manhattan. But a stint as a telemarketer selling light bulbs takes the cake for the worst.
In an interview with People, Seinfeld said, “I was a telephone salesman pitching light bulbs. It was 1976, and I was just looking for some grocery money. I hated the job, it was horrible. It was all lying, outrageous prices and phony names. I called myself Dave Wilson—you had to come up with a name so people would think they knew you.”
But it wasn’t all for naught, because his co-worker was named Mike Costanza, the inspiration for character George Constanza. Mike told the NY Daily News in 1997 that Seinfeld had a knack for writing scripts for cold calls. One of which was a real knee-slapper: “We called down South. ‘This is Mike Davis. You remember me? The handicapped veteran. You ordered two cases of bulbs from me?”
6. Whoopi Goldberg
Whoopi Goldberg applied makeup to dead people in a funeral home. Before the days of Sister Act, Goldberg took her talents as a beautician to the morgue. “I did hair and makeup on dead people,” she said. “There was an ad in the paper!”
Goldberg said one night her boss scared the living bejesus out of her with a prank. She got so scared she ran into a door and knocked herself unconscious. But it apparently made her a fearless talent, because she is only one of 11 people to win an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and a Tony Award.
She was also a phone sex operator.
5. Ricky Gervais
Long before The Office, Ricky Gervais once dreamt of being the biggest, baddest glam pop star in UK history. He was the frontman for a group called Seona Dancing. Their single “Bitter Heart” reached No. 79 on the British charts. (Don’t go to YouTube and watch it; you’ve been warned.)
On the album cover you see a younger, prettier, slimmer Gervais, donning glitter and a white scarf. Sadly, Seona Dancing broke up in 1984, and although his career as a glam-pop sensation was short-lived, the band was a hit among teens for a few months in the Philippines. Hey, that counts, too.
4. Rich Vos
New York City comedian Rich Vos went from virtually unknown to somewhat relevant on Last Comic Standing and Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. He was also the first white comic on Def Comedy Jam. But as an adolescent, he slang dope. Telling The Interrobang in September, “My first gig in life I guess was selling marijuana. Nickel bags, nothing big. I had a bunch of them hidden under my radiator downstairs and my grand mother found them and gave them to my dad. He gave one back to me and kept the rest.”
3. Ellen Degeneres
Growing up in Louisiana, Ellen Degeneres was many things. She was a door-to-door vacuum salesman, a waitress at TGI Fridays, and most impressive of all, an oyster-peeler. “When you live in New Orleans, you’re bound to be an oyster shucker.” Truer words have never been stated.
In 1984, only a few years after prepping seafood, she was deemed the Funniest Person in America by Showtime. Today you can catch her dancing and laughing on primetime TV—probably because she doesn’t have to shuck oysters anymore.
2. Tim Allen
Tim Allen was a coke dealer. In October 1978, he was arrested for selling 650 grams. He was 25. Before that, he earned a degree from Western Michigan University in television production. It seemed he was on a fast track to Hollywood, but as a young man he reeled in pain over his father’s untimely death. He decided to take a walk on the wild side as a drug trafficker in Kalamazoo.
After being caught in a sting operation, he was sentenced to three to seven years at a federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He served two years and four months. He told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1997 that prison matured him: “I was funny before that; prison grew me up. I was an adolescent that woke up too early when my father was killed, and I stayed at that angry adolescent level.”
1. Robin Williams
Before Robin Williams was a beloved national treasure and prolific show-biz award-magnet, he was a simple standup comedian. Before that, he was a mime.
In 1974 photographer Daniel Sorine snapped pictures of two mimes in Central Park. Thirty-five years later, he revisited the negatives and realized that one of them was Robin. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mine, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality and physical fluidity. When I approached them with my Pentax Spotmatic they allowed me to invite them into my camera instead of me having to chase after them.”
He would later play a mime on Saturday Night Live.
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